Honey mustard has become a ubiquitous condiment, as the flavors of the two components are very complementary--they lend themselves to a variety of uses. Cultures the world over have taken this combination into their cooking and made it their own.
Honey has been used as a food for all of recorded history and, presumably, long before that. Mustard has been used as a condiment for thousands of years. There are recipes for mustard that go back to 42 A.D. in Roman writings. Mustard was not widely popular until the seeds were exported by the Romans to Gaul (France). It proved to be very popular there, and mustard became a common item for food peddlers as early as the 13th century. By the 1600s in France, mustard had legal protection for its recipes and its makers. The French also substituted verjus or verjuice (a green grape juice) for vinegar in their recipes, producing the milder taste we associate with Dijon mustard. It was only a matter of time before people started combining mustard with honey to gentle it further.
Combining honey with mustard tames a sharp flavor by combining it with sweet. It also gives the sweet honey a tang that brings out many of the background flavors not readily apparent in straight honey. The two ingredients, when combined, flavor a variety of otherwise bland dishes, such as chicken and fish. It can be used for cooking or for a sauce after the dish is finished. With oil added, it also makes an excellent salad dressing for mild greens.
There are many types of honey mustard, because there are many types of both honey and mustard. The French have created their own gentle version, but countries with sharper mustards also combine them with honey. British mustard is quite sharp and strong, and is used quite sparingly on its own. When combined with honey, the Brits use it on everything from lamb to vegetables. Other cultures have recently adapted honey mustard to their own ingredients. Many Japanese restaurants use a honey-mustard dressing on various vegetables and salads, and some Chinese restaurants use it as a change-up on the traditional Chinese chicken salad. It has even found a home in Korea, where it is used with noodles and vegetables.
Honey mustard has almost infinite potential as an ingredient. It can be combined with other aromatics and herbs: garlic, basil, dill and rosemary--even chilies are a common addition. A hot-and-spicy honey mustard, made with fresh chilies or smoky chipotle peppers, makes a great barbecue sauce.
Honey mustard was bound to become a popular addition to the table; it has ingredients that enliven four of the five perceptible tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. When served with meats or with olive oil added, it also affects the umami (savory) receptors. This creates an overall flavor experience in the mouth that sharpens the flavor of anything that it is combined with.